PITTSBURGH — After 9 1/2 games of an offense that was supposed to light up scoreboards instead operate in frustrating fits and starts, Ben Roethlisberger decided he had seen enough. So in the locker room last Thursday against Tennessee, with the Steelers nursing a nine-point lead that didn’t feel like much of one, Roethlisberger let it rip.
The line. The wide receivers. The backs. Even himself. Roethlisberger spared no one during an impassioned speech that let it be known just getting by was no longer acceptable.
“He really jumped people’s (butts),” center Maurkice Pouncey said Monday. “And not even just talking about everybody on the team but talking about himself as well. It meant a lot to everybody in there.”
What followed were two quarters of brilliance. The Steelers had the ball five times in the second half. They scored on four of them, including three straight that ended with Roethlisberger touchdown passes. The quarterback who facetiously wondered if he still “had it” after getting bludgeoned by Jacksonville a month ago went 20 of 23 for 185 yards and three scores after halftime in a clinical 40-17 dissection of the Titans.
It was vintage Roethlisberger. And just like that, all the self-inflicted drama that has plagued the Steelers this year disappeared.
“It kind of felt pretty easy,” right guard David DeCastro said.
Looked pretty easy, too. While DeCastro stressed the first-place Steelers (8-2) never panicked while trudging through the first two-plus months of the season relying heavily on their defense in the decidedly meh AFC North, to have all that confidence translate into points provided the kind of boost Pittsburgh hopes to carry into December and beyond.
“We all knew it was there,” DeCastro said. “It’s nice to be able to prove it. None of us doubted it, but to put it on tape and put it out there, someone told me we were one of five teams that hadn’t scored 30 points in the season until last game. It’s nice to do it.”
Now, to do it again, a prospect that took a bit of a hit Monday when starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing substance policy. Gilbert will not appeal the suspension, meaning he is barred from the team’s facility until Dec. 18, a day after the Steelers host New England in a showdown that could decide home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.
“I apologize to my teammates, coaches and the entire Steelers family,” Gilbert said in a statement . “Regretfully, I inadvertently took a banned substance. I promise to come back in great shape and will be ready to play when my suspension is over.”
General manager Kevin Colbert said the team was “disappointed” after Gilbert became the third different Steeler to be disciplined for off-the-field infractions. Wide receiver Martavis Bryant was suspended for four games in 2015 and missed the entire 2016 season and running back Le’Veon Bell sat one game in 2015 and three more in 2016 for running afoul of the league’s substance-abuse policy.
Gilbert has missed five games this season due to a lingering hamstring issue. Chris Hubbard likely will fill in on Sunday when Pittsburgh hosts Green Bay (5-5). Pittsburgh’s offense has been more productive this season when Gilbert is available. The Steelers are 5-0 when Gilbert plays, averaging 25.2 points. They are 3-2 when he does not, with their scoring average dropping to 20 points.
Even with Gilbert unavailable Pittsburgh figures to be heavy favorites the next three weeks before the Patriots visit Heinz Field. A fourth straight playoff berth all but assured barring an epic collapse, Gilbert will be back in plenty of time to get ready for a postseason push.
The Steelers would prefer the AFC playoffs run through Heinz Field. The path to home-field advantage just became a bit more difficult. Then again, as great as it felt Thursday night while going up and down the field against Tennessee, the Steelers are just fine if they are forced to return to the boring, ball-control style that was this group’s trademark before pushing around the Titans.
“If we win a Super Bowl looking unimpressive, that’s great,” DeCastro said. “If we get a first-round bye being unimpressive, cool. Let’s just keep winning.”